As the festive season approaches, substance abuse agency Sedqa has called for a change in the law to allow the police to carry out random breathalyser tests at road blocks as a way of clamping down on drunk driving.

Under current laws, the police are only permitted to perform a breathalyser test when they “reasonably suspect” a person is drunk. Even then, a driver may refuse the test, leaving the police with only one option: to arrest the person on the basis of the refusal.

Sedqa’s operations director Jesmond Schembri told The Times that police officers need to be given more power to administer the test. Right now, he said, they can only do so if they have seen the driver swerve for no apparent reason or after an accident, for example.

“Just as in a roadblock nobody can protest if a policeman asks to see an ID card or driving licence, policemen should also have the discretion to administer a breathalyser test,” he said.

Only 60 positive breathalyser tests were carried out this year until the end of October, according to police statistics. Sedqa’s call comes ahead of a campaign to raise awareness to the dangers of drinking too much which it plans to launch for the Christmas period.

Last week, it highlighted the urgent need on a national alcohol policy, in the wake of a UK report which revealed that drink causes more harm to society overall than illegal drugs like heroin, ecstasy or crack cocaine.

The agency is also advocating a lower threshold on what qualifies as drunk driving.

“Right now we are lobbying with the rest of Europe... to bring down the alcohol limit from 80mg/dl of blood to 50 mg/dl,” Mr Schembri said.

Alcohol intoxication varies according to the individual but for most people this would mean a limit of one small beer, a glass of wine or shot of spirit per hour. The agency had made a similar call last year but it was not taken up.

Mr Schembri said Malta was experiencing a shift in alcohol consumption from quiet drinking over a long period to binge drinking.

The problem with binge drinking was that it lulled one’s response in certain situations, he said, giving the example of a slow reaction to the need to press the brakes.

Especially in adolescents, peer pressure overcame many of the messages which the agency was trying to put across, he added.

It is precisely because of the multi-faceted nature of the alcohol problem that the agency is calling for the drawing up of a national policy which would help introduce a more coordinated response.

“This would be a very strong statement by the government to move in the right direction.”

He said the minimum drinking age should be raised to 18 for health reasons, as alcohol had a worse effect on the body when the organs were still developing and because alcohol abuse had serious effects on others.

One effect, as highlighted in the national sexual health policy published last week, is a higher incidence of sex among teenagers.

“If, in this country, the right to vote, possession of a firearm and a driving licence are only granted at 18, why shouldn’t alcohol be bound by this age limit too?” he said.

Sedqa estimates there are about 15,000 Maltese people who are experiencing serious alcohol problems.

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